Typical lists of core competencies for undergraduates feature written communication, critical thinking and information literacy, among others, but merely presume, leaving unstated, the bedrock importance of reading skills. Lifelong learning, a dedication to which is part of practically all mission or aspirational statements, includes the ongoing practice and continued appreciation of those core skills, including—presumably—reading. What is rarely discussed, however, is why we continue to read. Yet to that seemingly simple question there can be several answers, which may differ for our varied student bodies: traditional-age students, say, compared to the adult learners colleges and universities seek increasingly to attract. The answers may also change for individuals as they advance through the life cycle. These changes deserve greater awareness and more explicit attention. Specifically, why bother to read when you’re old?
I have always loved to read. But why? The answers are much different now than they were before. And what I get from my reading has changed, too. I have long considered reading the bottomless well to which I could turn as needed, a singularly empowering resource in my life. If I found myself in a pinch, I figured I could read my way out of it, by learning what I needed to know. Now though, if I am honest with myself, increasing my stock of deployable information and skills is not really why I read, even if one does amass a good bit of knowledge, some of it usable, along the way. For the most part, however, I don’t read to learn, especially when it comes to reading more extended pieces. The exceptions, while significant, are either mundane (most recently, for instance, how to clean my coffeemaker) or quotidien (regular information and perspectives from newspapers and magazines). For more in-depth reading, staying au courant is clearly not my goal—since so much of what I read is not particularly current.
Nor do I read for purposes of explicit self-improvement, about which I generally care very little at this point in my life. Again, there are exceptions: for instance, of late, Ibram X. Kendi’s works on antiracism. But I’m not reading great novels or major works of non-fiction as a means of working through problems or applying insights gained to my own life. In fact, I am not really using what I read for any particular purpose—surely not to identify a salient reference or mark a potential quotation for a research paper.
It is also not to acquire bits and pieces of knowledge, Jeopardy-style, that I read. There’s scarcely room in my memory registers for that. In truth, I can barely, without a jog, conjure up what I’ve read a relatively short time ago. The recent experience of reading Joyce Carol Oates’s and Christopher R. Beha’s (eds.) Anthology of Contemporary American Short Fiction, for instance, with its 48 selections over 760 pages, was brilliant but dizzying. I would stumble, if asked just days later, to pinpoint which stories I found most striking.
But luckily, instant recall doesn’t matter so much, because I’m no longer aiming to impart what I’ve read to others. I taught for a long time, and loved it, but do so no longer, except for some weekly tutoring at an adult basic education center. Thus I am no longer an interpreter of or mediator between the works of a primary author and an audience of students or colleagues. Now, what I read stays mostly inside, in intense but internal dialogue, except for occasional comments to college-age kids or my spouse. And I surely do not read just to pass the time. There are far easier ways of doing that.
So, why read (or re-read) Middlemarch? The Last Tsar? The Awakening? Simply Einstein?
The real reason I read, and derive so much pleasure from reading, is because of its intense present-ness. Reading provides an absorption in the moment that, for me, few other activities can match. This form of radical present-ness, an immersion in a different setting, group of people, sometimes another culture or society, is not a form of escape. I never forget who and where I am or my separation from what transpires on the pages I am reading or scrolling through. But the act of reading nevertheless lifts me, and elevates ordinary existence.
That is why I, now into my 70s, continue reading. With luck I hope to continue well beyond. It won’t be because the works appear on some bucket list composed of the works on the Harvard Five-Foot Shelf or a list of 100 Best Novels, or even the collected works of a particular author. It is freeing to read without a central utilitarian purpose, however valid it might be. Until recently, I don’t think I recognized sufficiently the possibility of—well—just reading.
Here are three suggestions by way of conclusion. First, I would encourage the explicit inclusion of reading as a core learning outcome, rather than merely as the assumed foundation for other competencies such as critical thinking, information literacy and written communication. Second, encourage students to consider the varied purposes for which they might read, and how these might change over time. For colleges and universities to truly commit to the lifelong development of our students, consideration ought to be paid to the changing import and meaning of intellectual activities, including reading. And finally, help students see that the pleasure of radical absorption awaits them—at any age.
Daniel Regan is a sociologist and the retired dean of academic affairs at Johnson State College, now Northern Vermont University-Johnson.